Sleeping in slave dwellings is a simple act. In my five years of performing this act, over 70 extant dwellings in 16 states have been visited. Some of these sites have had more than one sleepover meaning that the overnights have exceeded more than 100. I have been joined by in these sleepovers by descendants of slaves and slave owners.
Last year we took the project to a new level by conducting the first conference in Savannah, Georgia. Although successful, I, board members and volunteers learned that planning and implementing a conference is hard. Despite the challenges, we wanted to improve on last year’s conference. To that end, with no money in the kitty, we stepped out on faith to plan the 2015 Slave Dwelling Project conference. That faith was really tested when we signed the contract to have the conference at the Embassy Suites in North Charleston, South Carolina.
The process for choosing the presenters proceeded and went on swimmingly. Deadlines were met, which made it an easy and fun process for the program committee that vetted the potential presenters. The result was a strong line up of speakers who had the potential to speak to the conference theme: “A History Denied – Preserving Tangible Evidences of Slave Dwellings”
Again, fabric artist Arianne King Comer, took charge of assembling the artists who would participate in the conference. This year, she took it to a whole new level. Arianne secured display space in the North Charleston City Hall. There the art work would be displayed for one month prior to the conference.
Early in the process, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens became the first financial sponsor for the conference. McLeod Plantation followed shortly thereafter by becoming an in-kind sponsor. The South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium committed to sponsoring 10 students. The idea of sponsoring students to attend the conference was most appealing for Dee Mallon, Audrey Johnson, Al Miller, and Ruth Miller followed suit. Toni Carrier of Lowcountry Africana and a conference presenter sponsored internet access. As generous as these donations were, they would only put a dent in the total cost of the conference.
June 1 and the opportunity to register was made available. Beyond making the decision to conduct the conference and signing the contract with the Embassy Suites, this would be the most stressful period in the process. Stressful because we were now relying on registrants to meet the financials projections of the conference. Without enough registrants, we would be doomed to fail.
And then it happened. For the second consecutive year, the 1772 Foundation came through in a big way with a $48,250 grant for the conference. The plans for the conference could now go forward in a less stressful mode.
And went forward it did. The number of registrants surpassed the 125 that registered for the Savannah conference and was on an upward trend until the week before the conference when Mother Nature unleashed over the state of South Carolina a rain storm the magnitude of which no living person had seen before. With the infrastructure of the state so severely damaged by this storm, we had to seek assurance from the Embassy Suites that we were still on to have the conference. Obtaining that assurance, we quickly put the word out to all registered participants that the conference was going to occur. Unfortunately, for some our mightiest effort to convince them that it was safe to travel to South Carolina during this period, it could not override the negative images that the media was putting on the airwaves.
The show went on regardless, we knew well in advance that two of the scheduled presenters would not show but it was for reasons other than the weather.
November will be a critical month. Now that all of the final numbers are in, all of the bills have been paid and the critics have given their input, we will use that information to consult with entities who expressed interests in hosting the conference in 2016. If the decision is made to conduct a 2016 conference, the planning for same must proceed from that point forward.
Thank you to all who participated in some manner, board members, volunteers, presenters, sponsors and those who registered.
The following is input from some of the participants.
Erik C. Denson, Lead Instructor, Diving With a Purpose, Maritime Archaeology Program
The Slave Dwelling Conference was great. Full of top notch speakers, experts in their fields with a passion for their work.
American history contains the good, the bad and the ugly. Many times we ignore or try to forget the bad and the ugly. The topic of slavery brings out strong emotions, especially among African Americans.
I originally didn’t know what to expect from attending a “Slave Dwelling” conference. I learned that we need to understand and remember our history no matter how dark it was.
These sites are historical sites and the people that gave their lives to build this country should be remembered and honored.
As I continue to type up my notes from the 2015 Slave Dwelling Conference, I continue to marvel at what Joe McGill has set into motion—a yearly gathering of historians, preservationists, homeowners, artists, writers, descendants of the enslaved, descendants of slaveholders, and others—all committed to telling this long-buried story that lies at the burdened heart of our country. And while it’s tempting, in this year of police violence toward blacks, and in this city of such recent heartbreak, to feel that any progress we’ve made toward racial justice is a deception, I nevertheless came away from this conference deeply heartened. Heartened by stories of universities (Clemson, U. of Virginia) that are at last confronting their slaveholding past. Heartened by the beautiful sisters Rebecca Campbell and Catherine Braxton, descendants of enslaved African Americans at Charleston’s Drayton Hall, who spoke so powerfully about attachment to place and ancestors, and about forgiveness. Heartened by news that Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington, NC, has restored a two-story urban slave dwelling on its property and redone its interpretation, so that tours now begin in the slave dwelling and proceed to the big house. Heartened by all the conference attendees, black and white, who are wrestling with our difficult history. Heartened by the announcement that in 2017 Charleston will break ground for a museum dedicated to African-American history. Heartened above all by the example of Joe McGill, who inspires me with his grace, passion, stamina, kindness, eloquence, intelligence, and more than anything else, his absolute devotion to speaking the truth. Thank you.
PRESERVATION WITH A CHANGE AGENDA – the 2015 Slave Dwelling Project Conference
By: Prinny Anderson
The Slave Dwelling Project’s mission has always been to find and preserve the habitations and work spaces of enslaved people in order to ensure their stories and contributions are told and woven back into the larger context of local, regional and national history. Once the stewards and owners of extant dwellings get on board with the concept, their next challenges are to find the ways and means to carry out the preservation, develop an interpretation, and get the story out to the public, and these challenges are not insignificant. For sites that wish to take further steps, another question is “why?” To what end does anyone preserve, interpret, educate and inform? Is there a wider agenda?
This year’s Slave Dwelling Project conference offered even more opportunities to find out how sites are addressing the “why?” question. The answers are often multi-layered. The University of Virginia’s campus-wide project to learn the names of the enslaved builders and servants, to identify and mark their living spaces, to find, set aside, and memorialize their burial spots, and to tease out and tell their stories speaks to several “why’s.” It re-integrates the history of the town and the campus in the early 19th century, putting the roles of the African Americans, their skills and talents, and their contributions back into the historical narrative. The project provides a practice field for students learning archaeology, public history and related topics. It is a source of education for a wider audience of students. And students’ energy and passion help drive the work, which expresses their commitment to historic and social justice.
Other universities are following suit. The Slave Dwelling Project’s overnight stays have engaged graduate and undergraduate students directly with the physical facts of antebellum and postbellum economic, social and political history and have contributed to a variety of ways in which they integrate and share what they learn. For example, UNC Wilmington students created a set of portable interpretive panels about the lives and work of enslaved people, and those panels are currently touring the state. The preservation and interpretation effort extends into a change agenda by expanding students’ knowledge, which in turn enlarges the public’s knowledge and capacity to re-integrate its heritage.
Through the conference, several historic sites talked about new programming and expanded outreach they are carrying out to go beyond the “what” and the “how.” Drayton Hall gave a two-pronged presentation that was an example of combining place, people and artifacts to round out the story of the lives of enslaved people and to illustrate how the institution of bondage continues to affect people today. George McDaniel, a long-time historian of Drayton Hall, and two descendants of formerly enslaved Drayton Hall families alternately showed and explained artifacts found at the site and talked about stories handed down through families associated with those artifacts. They also described the meaning of those artifacts today, along with the deeply held feelings they still evoke. Miss Catherine and Miss Rebecca concluded the talk by sharing their wisdom, that remembering is most valuable when it stimulates conversations in groups of African and European Americans to deepen understanding and move toward healing.
Similarly, a synopsis of the Slave Dwelling Project’s overnight at Monticello emphasized honoring the ancestors, engaging with the descendants of the enslaved community, and opening minds and hearts in dialogue. The people who participated in the Monticello sleepover wrote about a sense of pride in what their ancestors did, a hope that more and more of their ancestors’ stories would be recognized, told and woven into the overall site narrative, and a feeling that perhaps at last their own heritage and identity was being acknowledged.
The field trip to McLeod Plantation on James Island, SC, gave another example of how bringing together stories of people, place, operations and products can be compelling and meaningful. Along with the historic narrative that ran from the establishment of the plantation to the current challenges of interpreting the site, was the surprisingly dramatic story of the agricultural operations and resulting products that created the owners’ wealth. Not only was the process of growing, picking, processing and packing cotton told in a vivid and engaging way, the intensive demands of the labor, the pain and danger inherent in each step, and the disregard for the enslaved workers’ safety were clearly spelled out. The conclusion of the story of Sea Island cotton at McLeod gave the tonnage produced and the revenue accrued by the plantation owner, leaving no doubt about the extent of the contribution of African American labor to the economy and to the slaveholders’ wealth.
Finally, in plenary and session discussions, we were encouraged to broaden the concept of “slave dwellings.” We were reminded of all the “dwelling” spots that would never have left evidence – flimsy stick dwellings or canvas tents erected at the edges of fields, sleeping places in wooded thickets or under the stars, pallets laid at the foot of owners’ beds, outside bedroom doors, or under staircases. We were reminded to think about where enslaved people might have slept when they traveled, whether they were accompanying their owners but barred from a room in the inn, or traveling alone on behalf of their owners and having to seek refuge as best they could, perhaps with free people of color, perhaps in remote barns, perhaps outdoors. These reminders create a picture of a landscape much more fully populated with African Americans, more dynamic, and even more dismissive of the lives of those who labored for the country’s growth than we might otherwise recognize.
It is exciting to see how historians and preservationists focused on slavery, slave dwellings, and the histories of the enslaved people are already working an agenda for change. Perhaps the next phase is to take the slave dwelling stories and their underlying messages to an even wider audience and expand the opportunities for change.